I'm spending the summer as a shooting instructor for a summer camp in the shits and pits of Maryland. The pay, too, is shit; but every time I burn a flat of shells and a box of clays during lunch, it's like giving myself a $75 raise.
Teaching and wrangling young American men and boys is not unlike teaching and wrangling young Afghan men and boys. I find that I very rarely need to raise my voice, save to be heard over the sound of gunfire or a crowd. It's amazing what one can accomplish with hard eye contact, a set jaw, and a carefully cultivated and affected animal growl.
I have also yet to go full knife-hand on a kid, but I await with relish the day I find an excuse to. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy interacting with children - one on one or in small groups.
A crowd of 700 is another thing entirely, and one must crucify the ringleaders to set an example for the surviving rebels.
"How you are calling this? It is rondo?"
"No," I say, pulling in ahead of an ancient white Ford with a homemade stake bed, "But close. We call it a roundabout or a traffic circle."
Next to me in the car is a Polish cultural exchange worker. I don't know what the entirety of the scam is, but basically it's a special kind of work visa where the employers don't have to pay foreign workers minimum wage, and in return on the tail end of the work detail they get a few weeks before they have to report back for repatriation, to be used for travel and sight-seeing.
A few years ago, a whole cadre of Russians just disappeared into the night on the camp's bicycles during their very first week, never to be seen again. The Sheriff was alerted of course, as was la migra, but legend has it they were already on the Jersey shore working for a Bratva front by breakfast.
This year, we just have the one Pole. There were supposed to have been a handful of Egyptians, and word is if they can keep a government for more than a week their visas may actually get approved.
But for now it's only the one. And due to the camp rules on age differences, who's allowed to have a car, and other logistics concerns, I've been the one showing her America during the scant off hours we have here.
Much to the chagrin of our employer and the visa facilitation organization, I have been showing her the real America. The kind you don't get on any booklet or tour. The kind that isn't silly enough for reality television, and not glamorous enough to be written about in books.
Waffle House, the drive-in theater, and rural back roads where if you powerslide around a switchback nobody cares except the cows. She jabs at weak American beer in restaurants, but joins us on Saturday for Natty Bo and raw corn liquor.
On the weekends, I teach her to kill bowling pins with the Glock, and a pump shotgun set up for clearing houses. This is a supreme novelty for someone who lives in a place where private citizens are de facto prohibited from owning the tamest of guns, let alone sleek, black machines rigged for killing.
"Even in the cheapest restaurant in Poland, no matter what you order, it would never be served on paper plates."
I laugh, and ask how she likes the pizza. She tells me it's amazing, and takes a picture or two.
The pictures appear, now, in her phone next to carefully posed shots featuring guns, semi-trucks, and what she has learned is actually known as Awful House despite the letters on the sign and the frequency with which we visit the establishment.
I had forgotten this humidity. It's the same godawful damp that you get in the Persian Gulf, like being trapped in a wet sleeping bag.
I remember passing through one of our many military installations in that part of the world on R&R, and being willing to trade twenty points of humidity for twenty points of temperature. Even an ocean breeze is repulsive when it does nothing but bring the smell of salt.
At least when it's 120 degrees out and dry as a bone, your sweat actually evaporates. 90/90 is a recipe for solid hate.
I find myself telling my students to drink water "or else you're going to end up looking like a mummy turd." A colorful expression learned in a previous life.
I still can't quite believe that the first Europeans to land here and make a go at it didn't land, stay a week, then throw up their hands and go home regardless of the consequences. What could have been so bad that an endless brackish swamp was considered a gift from God?
Happy birthday to you,
Happy birthday to you,
Happy birthday dear America,
Happy birthday to you!
I ask her what she wants to go see.
"Anything. Everything is interesting. In my village we read about America this and Americans that, or see it on TV that something has happened in America, and we aren't surprised anymore. Anything can happen in America."
I laugh at so many of the things she says, but it's a laugh of joy. It's pure wonderment, and the American dream.
"When you are driving in neighborhoods, can you tell what kinds of people live there by how the buildings look in the style of their making?"
So we discuss regional architecture, and how one gets a feeling for the age of a house in America in terms of what decade it was built in. We drive through a couple of neighborhoods, and I explain what all of the flags mean, and what people think or want them to mean.
"In Poland, they hang a Polish flag from every other light pole. They are everywhere, and nobody cares. Are there rules, here, for putting them out for holidays?"
I've heard the American dream defined many ways. For a long time I subscribed to the notion that the American dream was really just peace of mind; something a little different for everyone, but ultimately, that it is nothing more or less than the ability to go to sleep every night without having to worry about the possibility of a bleak future for reasons beyond your own control.
But I think now that the American dream is something that the native sons and daughters can never have, nor fully appreciate.
My new Polish friend sees the American flag and knows that she's really, actually here; the only person in her village to see it with her own eyes. The only person she knows who has ever actually been here.
She wants to stop by the consulate on her way out of town so she can look at extending her work period.
I see flags and I see the ones that cover big metal coffins; that fly over sandbags; the one worn as a cape by a superman who is too busy looking for pennies and kicking at dried gum on the sidewalk to bother with saving the world.
I was asked by the camp's managerial staff if I would be willing to give a special 4th of July address during evening program tonight, "Because we feel it would be good for our image for a veteran to be highlighted among the staff".
I declined as politely as I could, and went about collecting the (dozens of) unserviceable American flags I have been finding crammed into every closet and drawer, and preparing for a proper pyre on my off day. Every time I find one, and ask if anybody knows about others, I get blank stares and stutters of "Wow, I thought for sure someone had taken care of those."
I understand that the flag is just a symbol; I agree that there is nothing particularly holy about a particular arrangement of colored cloth; I'm not prepared to suggest we build a new law enforcement agency to enforce the US Flag Code.
But if you're going to go to the lengths these people do to harp about patriotism, and ceremony, and proper respect for symbols, you could at least hide your hypocrisy a little better.
I found a whole drawer full of coffin flags.
You can tell what they are by the size, and the fact that they are visibly flimsy. Never meant to fly even in fair weather; you can see through the material, and the stitching on the stars is done with coarse cotton two ply thread.
They had been turned over by widows and sons and inheritors of estates to be disposed of properly; and they had been instead left under old volleyball nets, Rolodexes, and phone books with the coupons clipped out.
It was suggested that we form a color guard, and burn them during the evening bonfire, for the entertainment of the children and their parents on their last night in camp for the summer.
On my way through the parking lot on the way out of that particular proposal it was all I could do to not prowl the rows, taking a tally of yellow ribbon bumper stickers.
All the national holidays are starting to bleed together into a Summer retail season. Memorial Day, Independence Day, Veterans Day; flags and bunting and buy-two-get-one-free hotdog buns.
On the way out of the county-approved liquor store this afternoon: "Would you like to add $1 to your order to support the troops?"
No ma'am; I am the troops, and the bourbon is all the support I need.